Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hooray for Bollywood!

Berlin, February 2011.

Potsdamer Platz lies in the very center of Berlin. Named for the town of Potsdam some 25 km away, it marks where the old road entered through the city wall into Berlin.  By the end of WWII, the square and much of the surrounding city had been flattened by bombing.

In 1961, the Berlin Wall completely bisected Potsdamer Platz, leaving it in a limbo wasteland until 1989.

Today, it is home to huge modern skyscrapers and stunning architecture....

...including this soaring atrium that connects several buildings.

There are still reminders of the past, though. For just a few euros, you can have your photo taken in front of remnants of the notorious wall...

...and on the back of the wall, photographs give a "before and after" reminder of that divisive time.

But we weren't here just to absorb Berlin's history. The middle of February is definitely not a time to choose to go to Berlin. The temperature hovers around zero during the day, icy winds blow in from the East, everyone walks around bundled in warm coats, hats, scarves, gloves, boots.  In spite of this, several thousand people arrive from all over the world at this time to attend the annual Berlin Film Festival, known as the Berlinale, based in and around Potsdamer Platz. At ticket offices throughout the city, Berliners line up to book their seats for the hundreds of screenings that take place all day long and late into the evening.

We were lucky enough to be there to attend the screening of a film Matthew wrote a year or so ago with a Bollywood director from Mumbai, Vishal Bhardwaj, which was showing in the Panorama Section of the Festival. Vishal and his team of 9 colleagues, including two of the actors, made the journey from India. We came in from Paris, and with our official badges in hand, or rather hanging round our necks, we spent three nights at the Grand Hyatt in the heart of Potsdamer Platz, absorbing all the razzle dazzle.

The premier theatre, next to our hotel, had a permanent "Red Carpet". No matter the time of day, there always seemed to be some actor, director, producer being applauded by eager fans, and happily waving back. Press conferences with Festival participants played on the big jumbotron above the entrance.

At our press conference, streamed live on the internet, and also simulcast in the main square, Vishal, Matthew and the two actors, answered questions about the film from the, mostly, Indian press. The movie, 7 Khoon Maat (in English 7 Sins Forgiven), follows the notorious life of Susanna, who marries seven husbands and becomes widowed each time under suspiciously murderous circumstance...

Meanwhile, outside in the middle of Potsdamer Platz, one of this year's sponsors, L'Oréal, had set up shop, where shapely beauties could be seen having their hair coiffed, their flawless complexions creamed and nails buffed...

...brown bears stood proudly everywhere, on the streets and in the shopping malls

...and even though this giraffe, made from lego, seemed a little out of place, it added a charming splash of color to the grey, cold days.

Thursday evening arrived and, in spite of the temperatures, the brave women from Mumbai emerged in their gorgeous silken finery. (I opted for a Kashmiri wool jacket!). A fleet of BMWs (another sponsor) brought us to the Friedrichestadtpalast theatre, where Vishal was greeted by many eager fans.

Wieland Speck, the director of the Panorama section welcomed us all warmly, and posed for a photo shoot with Vishal and the two actors who had come from India. The young man on the right, Vivaan Shah, plays the lead male role. He's 22 years old and this is his first movie! On the left is the veteran character actor, Annu Kapoor, who almost steals the movie with his role.

The film played to a packed house, receiving a big ovation at the end. Vishal, Matthew, the actors and the other members of the Mumbai team were each called to the stage to further applause. A great moment for them all.

Many in the audience lingered afterwards, seeking autographs or a chance to shake Vishal's hand. In India, he is quite a superstar.  Eventually we found our coats and were whisked off to a nearby Indian restaurant, where we feasted on course after course of delicious food, everyone just so happy at the film's reception. A truly memorable evening.

At dawn the next morning, our Mumbai friends flew back to India. We, however, had another two days to visit with niece Miranda and family, and other friends. And to dip into the extraordinary cultural richness of Berlin.

First up was a train ride from Potsdamer Platz Bahnhof (S-bahn line) out to the town of Wannsee, about 45 minutes away. Here, in a spacious mansion overlooking Lake Wannsee, The American Academy in Berlin sponsors residential fellowships to forge ties between the US and Germany in the arts, humanities and public affairs.

Our dear friend Pamela Rosenberg became Dean of Fellows at the Academy last fall. We enjoyed a lovely lunch with her, meeting several fellows, and imagining how beautiful it must all be when everything is in full leaf and flower!

Taking the train back to Berlin, we found our way to the Pergamon Museum of Antiquities, where an extraordinary show is currently being featured, Die Geretteten Götter. Roughly translated, this means The Saved Gods. The exhibition tells the story of Max von Oppenheim, who during the early part of the 20th century led several expeditions to the Upper Khabur region, now part of north-east Syria.

Here, he found a a royal palace from the lst millenneum BC, adorned with gigantic figures of gods and mythological creatures.

Bringing them back to Berlin, he eventually opened his own museum, the Tell Halaf Museum, in 1930.

Unhappily, in 1943 the museum took a direct hit from an aerial bomb, which gutted the exhibition building. Everything was shattered or destroyed.

Somehow, the rubble was gathered and moved to the Pergamon's vaults. There they remained until 2001 when a group of scholars and restorers began the challenging task of piecing together the shards.

Amazingly, many of the former glories have been recreated, sometimes with all the pieces miraculously fitting together. A great testament to the devotion and scholarship of the restorers.

A final outing on Saturday afternoon found us in the Science Museum, with its breathtaking entrance hall, sure to take the breath away of every four year old in sight -- and a few older visitors as well!

Matthew even found a familiar face -- Vermithrax, of Dragonslayer fame.  Hooray for Hollywood as well!

À bientôt!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Right of Return...

...or perhaps I should say "the rite of return", because here in France, whenever you want to return a purchase, you find yourself facing an immovable, implacable, impossible wall of rigid rules, rituals and regulations. This is also known as the French Bureaucracy!

For example, at the end of last month, I went to return three small items -- total value 17.70 euros (about $23) -- at Conforama, which is a smaller version of Ikea with the advantage of being in the centre of Paris instead of out by the airport. After a bit of aimless wandering, I was directed to an adjacent building. Here I tapped a few icons on a computer screen to indicate I was returning items, and was rewarded with a piece of paper with the number 4 printed on it. An overhead monitor indicated that customer number 3 was being served in the adjacent room. I took a seat and waited.

Some 20 minutes later, my number flashed. I went into the office and sat down across from an unsmiling Monsieur. I explained that I wished to return three items (cloth-covered cardboard boxes that I had hoped would fit in a hanging closet thingie in our bedroom). I handed them over, along with my receipt.

"Mais, Madame, ils sont ouverts," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. Well, yes, two of them had been opened, because it was only after I tried them that I found they did not fit. He was unmoved. I explained again, adding that I had repacked them carefully, and that the third one had not been opened. Frowning, he began tapping on his computer,  then looked at me carefully and announced that he could give me a credit for the unopened one, but not for the opened packages. "But how could I know they did not fit," I pleaded in my best French, "if I did not try them out?"

He sighed, tapped some more information into his computer, and then told me that just this one time -- "exceptionnellement, Madame..." he would allow me to return the two opened packages for a store credit - "un avoir" - of 11.20 euros.

That was not the end, though. He finished typing and hit a key. Across the room an ancient dot matrix printer started up, spitting out two sheets of paper. Monsieur collected them, signed in various places, had me sign, carefully tore off the tractor feed guides and gave me one copy. He then took my receipt and meticulously placed a stamp next to each item and noted the date of return, gave me my "carte d'avoir" and wished me  "bonne journée, Madame." The whole transaction had taken almost one hour!

I took my 11.20 euro credit, went back to the main store, bought six champagne glasses, four tumblers, all on sale, and have not been back to Conforama since!!

If that was a heads-up of the hurdles in returning purchases, my experience at Ikea the following weekend was beyond bizarre.
I had bravely gone out there on my own. Without a car, it's a 25 minute ride on the RER B to Parc des Éxpositions, and then a short bus ride. Once inside, I could have just as easily been in the Emeryville, California Ikea. The same merchandise, the same winding route through the showrooms, same elevator down to the "marché" where I picked up my shopping cart and got down to business.

Arriving at the checkout, I stood in the usual long line, put my stuff on the moving belt, handed over the two slips of paper for items that were to be delivered,  paid my bill, and packed the smaller items into my rolly cart.

So far, so good.

Glancing at my receipt, the total seemed higher than I had expected. The young cashier had the same thought. She took it back from me and studied it carefully. We both noticed a third item among those to be delivered, for 88 euros. I had no idea what this item was, had not ordered it, and had no slip of paper for it.

Uh oh.

First, the young woman asked, would I please unpack my rolly cart and check the items against the receipt. Done. All correct and accounted for, except for the mysterious 88 euros item. Perplexed, the cashier called for help. It was clear a mistake had been made, but not by her, she assured me (and certainly not by me, I added!). Her supervisor studied the receipt and called for a third person who asked me to repack my rolly cart and follow her. Leading me clear across the vast check-out area, she asked me to wait by the "Returns" counter, then disappeared, with my receipt. After 20 minutes I began to get worried. After 30 minutes, I asked someone behind the desk where this woman had gone.  She made a phone call. "She's on her way back." Another 10 minutes, and she arrived, with my receipt. We were not finished, however. In order for me to receive a credit for the 88 euros, this woman had had to go to where you retrieve the larger merchandise and wait in line for someone to find the items. Having completed this task, she was only now in a position to initiate the lengthy, paper-laden process of "return of merchandise" of the mystery item, and issue a credit to my carte bleue!!! (I never did find out what the item was.)

By this time, I was speechless in both French and English. The thought of struggling with my overloaded rolly cart back to the bus and train loomed. I took a taxi instead -- cancelling out, of course, all the savings I had made by shopping at Ikea. To add insult to injury, there was an enormous "manifestation" at the Place de la République in support of the Egyptian protesters. Traffic was at a standstill. I paid off the cab somewhere in the outer 18th arrondissement, and humped and bumped my heavy rolly cart up and down the Metro stairs all the way home!

BUT I was learning the system. A few days later, at the venerable BHV, I sailed back to the curtain rod department...

 ...plonked down my  unopened packets of curtain accessories I had bought the previous week, along with my receipt, and, even though it still took a form to be completed, signed by two BHV staff and me, followed by a walk to the other end of the floor...I was instantly rewarded with a credit slip for the full 25 euros!!

Vive la France!

À bientôt!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Au Secours!

Our Metro Sentier neighborhood in the 2nd arrondissement not only claims the fabulous rue Montorgeuil as its centerpiece, it is also the heart of the garment and fabric district in Paris. On the way to my Club Med gym, in the narrow, winding streets that angle off the big rue Réaumur, I pass shop after shop displaying the biggest array of "tissu" I've ever seen.

Bolts and bolts of cloth stand like glittering soldiers behind windows.
Most of these boutiques are for the wholesale trade only, and most are small, but they crowd each other, cheek by jowl, offering splashes of bright colors on a grey day.

Stepping out of our building the other afternoon, -- on my way to the Romanov Exhibition at the Pinacotèque Museum -- I was brought up short by the sound of sirens and the sight of several trucks from the famed Parisian sapeurs-pompiers, right across the street!
In France, 79% of these highly trained firemen (men and women) are volunteers . In Paris, though, and certain other large metropolitan areas, they are part of the professional military. The term "pompiers" comes from the handpumps used to put out fires before the industrial revolution; "sapeurs" is the French word for sapper, or soldier, and dates back to the Napoleonic era.

Turning the corner, I saw at once why they were there. One of those small wholesale fabric shops on rue Cléry was on fire!

With their dashing silver helmets, the sapeurs-pompiers sprang immediately into action, with me trotting alongside, camera in hand!

Grey/black smoke billowed out through the doorway of the shop and into the street, choking the air.

As this young sapeur hurried to catch up with his comrades...

...others in the brigade readied all the equipment before entering the burning building. Policemen stood at either end of the cordoned-off area, politely but firmly forbidding anyone but the firemen to enter and ordering all the other shops to close their doors and shutters. 

These young sapeurs had been among the first to arrive. They look like 15 year-old teenagers! As replacements continued to come up the street, they took a well deserved water break.

Some 30 minutes later, the fire seemed to be under control, so I retraced my steps down the rue Cléry, and made my way over to the Pinacotèque Museum in the Place Madeleine. Here, I spent a happy, though very crowded, couple of hours in the company of the Romanov art collection from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Covering the history of their collecting over 214 years of tsarist rule, it begins with Peter the Great's secret journeys, in disguise, to France and England where he fell in love with western art, and continues with Catherine the Great, Alexander 1st all the way to the Russian Revolution and the ill-fated Nicholas II.

There was much to enjoy. Before the guard stopped me ("pas de photos, Madame") I managed to snap a couple of shots with my trusty iPhone! Here's the 18th century French artist Hubert Robert's Ancient Ruins Serving as a Public Bath....

...and this exquisite painting by the most famous French woman painter in the 18th/19th century, Marie-Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Titled Portrait des filles de Paul 1er, it captures both the innocence of childhood still apparent in the younger girl on the right, with the emerging sophistication of her older sister on the left -- note the earrings. Their father reigned over Russia for just five brief years, before being assassinated in 1801.

Standing in front of this Rembrandt, Portrait d'homme barbu, coiffé d'un beret, one could only stare in awe and bow before the master.

 After a nice coffee on the Place Madeleine, I took the bus home and found, to my amazement, that at 5 pm there was still a considerable presence of sapeurs-pompiers, although the operation seemed to be in its final clean-up phase.

The next day, the shops opened up their shutters and doors again.

Bright colors once more livened up the street.

Except, that is, for the unfortunate proprietors of the Elite Boutique, who must now begin the arduous process of repair and dealing with the insurance companies. Bonne chance!

À bientôt!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Dying Art of Printing on Paper

Last Thursday, our friend, Alain Philippe, invited a small group of us to visit 49, rue Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement, a quiet street between the bustling Boulevard Montparnasse and Boulevard Edgar Quinet. The fairly nondescript, tall brown street door opened into a passageway at the end of which another door revealed a messy reception area: piles of stone, lumber, tools and lots of dust.  Here our host greeted us and led us through an even bigger door, where, as we stepped through, we stepped back in time and all of us, quite literally, gasped out loud.

A vast 19th century studio space of 1400 square meters stretched away from us under huge skylight windows that bathed the interior in soft, winter light.

"Welcome to Idem" said Alain. 

 In today's digital, multi-pixelled world, L'Imprimerie d'Art Idem à Montparnasse, stands alone as one of the last remaining fine arts printing studios in Paris, providing the services of 6 master printers, 2 colorists, and 6 Voirin and Marinoni lithographic presses.

Lithography stones in all sizes line the walls, along with an exceptional selection of papers. Samples of work lie on tables or are propped up for close inspection.

Here, artists such as the filmmaker David Lynch and  Chihiro Minato, an artist, writer and professor of art from Tokyo, use the small artist studios upstairs to create their works, before handing them over to the master printers and colorists.

Working with the massive presses, gleaming with shiny metal and colored inks...

...one of the master printers and his assistant, Mathilde, get ready to pull the lever...

...and engage the multiple rollers that will transfer the image onto paper...

...ready to be checked for color and alignment.

It's an extraordinary, time-honored process that, unbelievably, is today no longer offered to art students at the Beaux Arts schools in Paris! One of Idem's many goals is to set up courses for students to come in small groups and learn from the master printers and colorists how to work with paper and stone, to pass on the knowledge and keep the art form alive. As the Idem website so poignantly points out, it would be hard to name one major artist who has not wanted to express his or her oeuvre on fine art paper.

We spent several hours, happily exploring all the nooks and crannies of this other-worldly place, admiring old posters lining the halls and stairways, leafing through piles of prints, marvelling at the quality of the work, at the smoothness of the stones, the texture of the paper.  This new poster by Francis Coppola's long-time art director, Dean Tavoularis, is now a label on certain bottles of Coppola's wines. As you can see, the original poster is stunning.  Tavoularis works frequently with Idem.

But my favorite -- a bit the worse for wear, bent at the edges, tucked away in a little corner upstairs -- was this 1935 poster advertising the biggest horse race in France, le Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Look at that design, those colors, that quality! It tells the whole story of the race.

Suddenly, it was lunchtime, and we all repaired to the nearby La Coupole, the grand 1927 Montparnasse Brasserie, with its extravagant art deco design, and, at this time of day,  packed with hungry customers, including our merry band.

Here, we devoured their signature oysters, onion soup, fresh fish, sitting under this highly ornamental milk glass ceiling.

To find out more about L'Imprimerie d'Art Idem à Montparnasse, the hopes and dreams of its founders and its artists, check out their website: www.lesamisdidem.org. Their efforts to preserve this singular art form are truly inspiring.

À bientôt!